1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most merciful to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed so overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1913: Henry Lovell William Clark, Raj poisoner

Add comment March 26th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1913 saw the hanging of Henry Lovell William Clark for a sensational pair of domestic murders in the British Raj.

The half-Indian Lieutenant Henry Lovell William Clark of the Indian Subordinate Medical Department struck up a sweltering affair in colonial Agra with the bored memsahib Augusta Fullam.

Their trysts over three-odd years from 1909 would become the scandal of British India — the specifically British part — after Clark’s wife Louisa was sabered to death in her home in November 1912 by a quartet of native assailants* who turned out to have been hired by her faithless husband.

The police inquiry soon uncovered a much deeper passion and depravity.

A trunk full of adulterous correspondence incautiously retained by Fullam documented months of her frustrated attempts to poison off her husband over the course of 1911.

The plan had simply been to infiltrate arsenic doses into Edward Fullam’s food. Arsenic poisoning was so popular precisely because the symptoms were so difficult to isolate from natural causes of death; off in India, it could easily be passed off as heat stroke or cholera.

“I give him half a tonic powder every day in his Sanatogen, lovie darling, because it lays on the top of the white powder quite unsuspiciously,” Augusta cooed to her doctor-lover in one letter.

Despite Augusta’s best efforts, lovie darling, Edward’s constitution proved to be as tenacious of his life as it was unsuspecting of his wife.

For month after harrowing month, his helpmate tried to kill him at dinner and teatime and anywhere else she got the opportunity to administer a packet of the “tonic powders” Dr. Clark supplied. He would often vomit and fall ill — Fullam recorded one occasion in June where her husband puked ten times in a single evening — but it wasn’t until October that Edward finally succumbed. Clark himself topped the arsenic wallop for that fading patient with a lethal dose of gelsemine just to make sure, then put his professional signature to the death certificate.

One spouse down. One to go.

It might have been wise for the lovers to stick with this potentially subtle method of homicide for Louisa Clark. While “murdered by swarthy intruders” is a classic, it can’t be signed off quietly by some random member of the medical profession. Neighbors had figured out the love affair, and when police pursued that line of inquiry, everyone’s alibis fell apart. Not to mention that trunk full of lovey-dovey bloodthirst.

Though Henry Clark hanged for the murder on March 26, 1913, he left his mistress pregnant — and this sufficed to save Augusta Fullam from the gallows. She died in Naini prison in 1914.

* According to this book, three of the four hired assassins were also executed.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

2 comments March 25th, 2014 Headsman

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1873: Mary Ann Cotton, serial poisoner

2 comments March 24th, 2014 Headsman

Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing!
Oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where?
Up in the air
Selling black pudding a penny a pair.

-Children’s nursery rhyme

On this date in 1873, prolific poisoner Mary Ann Cotton — whom some have tabbed Britain’s first serial killer for an arsenic murder spree claiming 21 or so souls — hanged at Durham County Gaol.

Her exact death toll remains somewhat conjectural since her method of choice — arsenic poisoning — so closely mirrored gastroenteritis. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration were hallmark symptoms of both afflictions, and as Mary Ann’s many children succumbed in such conditions over the years, they were easily chalked up to just another childhood mortality among the vast ranks of working poor.

At age 20, she wed a coal miner (her father had been one too, but fell to his death in a mine shaft years before). In the twelve-plus years of their marriage, she bore William Mowbray at least four children. Three died in childhood of — so the death certificates read — gastric ailments. William himself died of one too in January 1865, and Mary banked 35 quid in life insurance on the occasion.

Mary’s own testimony would eventually indicate at least four other children by Mowbray from when they lived in Plymouth. These were the circumstances for a repeat killer to thrive: when a mother can be eight or nine bodies into her career, every one of them close family members, and nobody has bothered to notice. She was said to be a consummate actress in her grief.

With Mowbray and her ample brood — of whatever size — off her hands, Mary Ann now made a career of disposable short-term marriages to men who could support her for a while, and then would mysteriously drop dead of a gastric problem with life insurance policies naming Mary Ann.

An engineer named George Ward, married in 1865 and died in 1866.

A widower named James Robinson had the good fortune to throw Mary Ann out of the house in 1869 for stealing. But that was only after five children in the household mysteriously died (three by Robinson’s previous marriage, one of Mary Ann’s and Robinson’s, and the last surviving child of Mary Ann and William Mowbray). Mary Ann also dipped out of that household for a bit to care for her ailing mother, who also then died within days. Robinson would say after his former wife’s arrest that he had been suspicious of all the dead kids and her eagerness to insure him, but nothing so strong it would lead him to, say, call the police.

In 1870, she found a Northumberland miner name of Frederick Cotton, who gave her the name by which history knows her. Only after Cotton dropped dead — and her lover Joseph Nattrass dropped dead — and a stepson and her own son by Cotton both dropped dead — did the black widow finally come to official attention. That happened when the mother, desperate to fob off her inconvenient last child, incautiously implied to a village overseer in Walbottle, Northumberland where she had moved to wed Frederick Cotton that young Charles Edward Cotton was likely to die soon.*

When he did so, that official had the death certificate held up to examine the boy’s body. Though arsenic’s symptoms were difficult to distinguish from less sinister medical conditions, the mid-19th century had seen the advent of an effective scientific test for toxin: the Marsh test. The end of the arsenic era would be the ensuing decades’ march towards ever more powerful forensic tests that could put the lie to the “gastroenteritis” diagnosis.

The Marsh test easily did so when applied to Charles Edward Cotton. All it had taken these twenty years was for someone at last to suspect something. Her trial of the “West Auckland poisoner” over a few days in early March — delayed because she was pregnant with one last child when arrested — saw intense public interest, and an easy conviction.

She only dropped her pretense of innocence, partially, on the morning of the hanging itself, under the persistent questioning of her Wesleyan minister “when, after some hesitancy, she said, ‘I believe that I poisoned the boy.’ She was also minutely questioned about the other cases of poisoning, and when it was urged that they could not have been accidental, she made no reply, but turned aside, leaving it to be inferred that she had been the cause of the other deaths.” (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1873)

A fuller account of Mary Ann Cotton’s biography with a handy graphic of her suspected victims can be found in this article by the author of a recent book about the poisoner.

* She was remarking on the difficulty that care of Cotton’s son posed for her intended next marriage/victim. “T’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long,” she said … which looks foolishly self-incriminating in print, but she had probably said such knowing-wink nothings to others before without trouble, seeing as even the wholesale deaths of several men’s entire progenies had not formerly sufficed to attract an inquiry.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1819: Hannah Bocking, 16-year-old poisoner

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1819, 16-year-old Hannah Bocking was hanged outside the Derby Gaol for murdering a friend with an arsenic-laced spice cake. She appears to be the youngest girl executed in 19th century England.

Bocking had been turned down for a household servant’s position on account of “her unamiable temper and disposition,” but her friend Jane Grant had been hired.

Instead of tightening up her job-interview game, the seething Bocking plotted her revenge on Jane, with whom she maintained a feigned comity. One day while out for a walk past the clanking remains of Anthony Lingard, who had been hanged four years before and left on display to strike terror into the hearts of malefactors, the un-deterred Bocking gave Jane her little pastry. Jane ate it, and died in agony, but not so much agony that she wasn’t able to tell what happened.

It was an easy conviction, and the sentence executed just four days later. Still, “at the moment, when she [Hannah Bocking] was launched into eternity,” one observer reported, “an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”

We have this lovely hanging broadsheet of Hannah’s execution (transcribed below) via Harvard University library.


Hannah Bocking, though of so young an age, appears to have had a mind greatly darkened and depraved, for it seems that she was instigated to the dreadful crime that she committed, solely from envy and hatred to the young woman (Jane Grant) because she lived in the family of her Grandfather-in-law, as servant, where she had herself formerly lived, and been turned away.

She procured arsnic [sic] at a surgeon’s in the neighbourhood, by saying, that it was for her Grandfather, for the purpose of killing Rats, and she prevailed on a young man to go with her, saying, that they would not sell it alone to her.

This mortal poison she put into a spice cake, and gave it the young woman, who thanked her, and unsuspectedly eat it, but was soon after seized with dreadful pains and agonies. In her illness she was attended by her relations, and being about to expire, her dying declaration was taken, that the cake she had eaten was the cause of the torments she suffered, which dying declaration was produced at the trial, and which, connected with other strong circumstances, was satisfactory to the minds of the jury and to every person in court.

So senseless and hardened in sin was this wretched creature, that she shewed no signs of remorse, nor appeared at all sensible of her awful situation when he solemn sentence of death was passed on her by the Learned Judge, but it seems that she felt severely afterwards on her return in the Caravan to the Gaol she shed many bitter tears, and continued crying for hours.

It was in this situation that she confessed her crime to a Lady, distinguished for her humanity; and entirely cleared her Brother and Sister in law from any participation in her crime. She declared that she alone was guilty.

On the Jury returning their verdict of Guilty, the learned Judge rose and passed sentence of death upon her, that her body should be given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized; at the same time most solemnly expatiating upon the enormity of the unnatural crime she had committed, and the horrid light she must appear before her divine Maker, recommending a sincere repentance and a full confession of her guilt.

Since her condemnation she has been attended by the Chaplain of the Gaol, and the Rev. Mr. Leech and others; and we hope their instructions have proved beneficial to her soul Between twelve and one o’clock she was brought in front of the county Gaol, and having spent a shot time in prayer, she was launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators, a dreadful example for all such as indulge the sin of envy, hatred, or malice. From envy, hatred, and malice may the Lord in his grace deliver us. Amen.

Sin has a thousand treach’rous arts,
 To practice on the mind;
With flatt’ring looks she tempts our hearts,
 BUt leaves a sting behind.

With names of virtue she deceives
 The aged and the young;
And while the heedless wretch believes,
 She makes his fetters strong.

She pleads for all the joys she brings,
 And gives a fair pretence;
But cheats the soul of heav’nly things,
 And chains it down to sense.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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Themed Set: Arsenic

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

One of this site’s recurring themes and criminology’s iconic trappings, the poison arsenic carried off many a soul.

Poison has been around forever, of course, but “inheritance powder” was a slow-motion moral panic in the Victorian years — when a man on the make could be imperceptibly nudged into an early grave by a friend or a spouse or a maid using a product that could be had for pennies from the local apothecary.

Who can feel safe, when little old ladies could make a murder spree of afternoon tea?

For the next several days, we’ll remember a few of the arsenic era’s more notable nudges … and a few of the distinct minority of poisoners who found that stealthy powder equally fatal to the hand that stirred it.

Arsenic photo (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

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1818: Abraham Casler, marital woes

1 comment May 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1818, Abraham Casler was hanged in Schoharie, N.Y. for escaping an ill-advised marriage by means of an illicit powder.

Casler had got young Catherine (Caty) Sprecker pregnant and was only induced to change her name in 1812 by threat of prosecution. Even at the wedding he told the bride’s own brother that he didn’t intend to live with the poor girl.

Casler immediately regretted committing himself to wedlock in any form whatsoever (his alternative would have been to pay a fine, much the bargain as compared to an unpromising marriage — particularly so in those benighted days before no-fault divorce). So he promptly enlisted in the army then fighting the War of 1812 so as “not to live with his wife that he wished … was out of the land of the living,” as he said to another recruit.

Well.

If wishes were fishes, they’d have arsenic inside. (n.b.: they do!)

When he finally had to return, Casler preferred to spend his time paying court to a widowed Albany innkeeper, and generally had a manifestly unhappy time of it with Caty. The latter’s epileptic fits probably only exacerbated the unwilling husband’s ire.

At last, while traveling, Caty Casler took ill with “a burning heat at her stomach & breast … cold chills by spells accompanied with sweat.” She “said her whole body was in pain; she was alernately [sic] cold and hot; would throw off the bed clothes, and then cover herself again.” After a couple of miserable bedridden days, all the while being personally treated by an attentive Abraham Casler who also shooed away attempts by other guests to assist or to summon medical aid,* Caty Casler succumbed, and “looked blue round the mouth and eyes” and “her hair came out.”

Doctors who conducted the post-mortem found what they were certain was arsenic and opium in Caty’s stomach. The trial record features a number of these medical men describing the exact tests they used to establish the presence of this deadly mineral; for instance, a Dr. James W. Miller described finding “particles … of a vitrious appearance” in the stomach.

Some of those particles were placed on a heated iron; a dense white fume arose from their combustion. Some of them were likewise placed between two plates of polished copper prepared for the purpose; those coppers were bound by an iron wire and placed into the fire until they were brought to red heat; they were then removed and after they were cold they were separated, the interior of the plates were whitened towards the edges of the plate in the form of a circle.

Last, taking two teaspoons of stomach fluid containing these suspicious particles,

He diluted it with a pint of water, then took the nitrate of silver and dissolved it and put into a separate glass; took pure ammonia into another glass; then took two glass rods, wet the end of one of them in the solution of the nitrate of silver, and dipped the end of the other in the pure ammonia, then brought the two ends of the rods in contact on the surface of the water in the vessel containing the contents of the stomach, and passed them down into the fluid; there was a precipitate from the point of contact, that precipitate was of an orange colour. He repeated that experiment several times, and also with arsenic dissolved in water. The results of the experiment were similar; the same precipitate in the one as in the other, tho’ it was more distinct in the solution made of arsenic, that being coulourless.

There was, in Dr. Miller’s opinion, “arsenic in the stomach; [he] has no doubt of it; considers the test made by him infallible; does not know that any thing except arsenic, will produce the same effect on copper, as was produced by those particles in the experiment.”

The court record merely summarizes the testimony witness by witness rather than providing a literal transcription, but one gets a sense of the thing merely leafing through it: it has 16 pages of prosecution testimony, from Casler’s Albany crush and family members catching him in suspicious circumstances, plus six different physicians, one of whom was a Professor of Chemistry at Fairfield Medical Academy.

The defense has one-half of one page, consisting of a flat denial by Casler and the observations of one former boarder with nothing useful to say.

The jury took two hours to convict.

After Casler hanged at the eponymous seat of Schoharie County (admitting his guilt on the scaffold), the gallows were left standing “as a solemn admonition of the penalty such crimes demand.”

That admonition had to be repeated: less than a year later, the crossbeam that had once supported Casler’s dying throes was tested again to dispatch a farmer from Sharon Springs who had bludgeoned a deputy sheriff to death.

* “It would only make a bill of expense,” Casler said of the prospect of summoning a physician for his wife. This was also the same disquieting answer he gave when asked if he would be taking the body to bury with her family; instead, he unsentimentally buried it at the nearest available spot, where it was soon exhumed by suspicious locals. The guy hung himself with skinflintedness.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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1752: Mary Blandy, “forgiveness powder”

1 comment April 6th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.

That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.

The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.

The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.

Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.

Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.

Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.

While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.

Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.

Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.

She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.

By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.

One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.

When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”

As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.

A few days later he was dead.

Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.

When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.

James C. Whorton discusses her trial in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play:

‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.

Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:

The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.

Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”

There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.

The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.

In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.

There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:

With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.

Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.

Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.

Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.

She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.

Update: Because you can find anything on the Internet: the story of Mary Blandy in shadow puppetry.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,Women

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1846: Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, in her rocking chair

1 comment January 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”

She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.

The key original documents from her trial, including the death sentence and the rejection of clemency (a petition to which 10 of Valkenburgh’s 12 jurors subscribed) are preserved here.

Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.

With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.

I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.

Right.

Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,USA,Women

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